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Alienware’s Area-51m flagship gaming laptop is big, thick, and fast, a return to form that should reassure people who got worried when the company unveiled the thin-and-light Alienware m15 last year. The new Area-51m very well might be the first gaming laptop to bring the Holy Grail of features to consumers: Upgradable graphics and an upgradable CPU.
Alienware Area-51m specs and features
The Area-51m’s spec list is all good stuff, and it’ll cost you. Our review unit is the highest-end SKU, which starts at $4,050 (available at Dell.com) but is $4,500 as configured below. For slightly more modest budgets, the lowest-end model starts at $1,950 and is nothing to sneeze at. Also note, the white “Lunar Light” color is a $50 upgrade over the dark-gray “Dark Side of the Moon” color.
CPU: Intel 8-core Core i9-9900K with Hyper-Threading. Alienware also offers an 8-core Core i7-9700K without Hyper-Threading and a 6-core Core i7-8700K with Hyper-Threading
GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, in a custom-upgradable version we’ll describe further below. RTX 2060 and RTX 2070 are also available.
RAM: 32GB DDR4/2400. Other RAM options include 8GB, 32GB, and 64GB.
Screen: 17.3-inch FHD (1920×1080) 144Hz Anti-Glare IPS Display with G-Sync and Tobii eyetracking. Other screen options mix-and-match G-Sync or Tobii eyetracking, or drop to a 60Hz refresh rate.
Storage: Our review unit carried 512GB of SSD storage using two M.2 NVMe drives, plus a 1TB hard drive. Many other storage options are available.
Ports: Two 10Gbps USB-A, one Thunderbolt 3, headset jack, mic jack, full-size HDMI 2.0, miniDisplayPort 1.4, Alienware Amplifier port, 2.5Gb Ethernet, lock port.
Power: The Area-51m we reviewed included a 330-watt brick for home use, and a 180-watt brick that’s theoretically mobile—lighter than the 330-watt brick, anyway. You can use both power bricks together, or separately, but performance will be affected in the latter case.
Dimensions: 15.9 x 16 x 1.6 inches
Area-51m: surprisingly “light” and “small”
If we told you the Area-51m was surprisingly light and small, you’d probably think we’d lost our minds. Naked, the Area-51m tipped our scale at 8 pounds, 15 ounces. With its two power bricks, it’ll take you to 13 pounds, 11 ounces.
Considering what’s inside of it, it’s almost light. We looked around at a few competing 17.3-inch designs: Some of them start at 12 pounds, and with power bricks will top 17 pounds. The Area-51m is, in fact, lighter than its predecessor, the Alienware 17 R5. which weighs 9 pounds, 12 ounces. The company said it achieved this by using a mostly magnesium body that allowed it to shift weight from the body to the cooling components. The plastic bottom lid helps, too.
You may also be shocked to find that the Area-51m is relatively small, at least in width and height. However, it’s almost a half-inch deeper than comparable laptops thanks to its signature-Alienware big tuckus.
What the Area-51m’s desktop CPU brings
There are two standout features on the Alienware Area-51m: the replaceable desktop CPU, and the replaceable GPU. First, let’s get into the socketed CPU and why it matters.
Once upon a time, most large gaming laptops used mobile socketed CPUs. Beginning with the 5th-generation Broadwell chips, Intel dumped socketed CPUs for all-mobile CPUs. That meant the ability to swap out the CPU down the road was impossible without also switching the motherboard—which, while technically possible, financially made no sense.
With the Area-51m, Alienware taps a standard desktop Core i9-9900K desktop CPU in an LGA1151 socket. What that gets you is 8 cores instead of 6, and and a little more clock speed (5GHz, rather than 4.8GHz) compared to the fastest laptop CPU, the Core i9-8950HK. You can see both CPUs compared here on Intel’s ARK.
Because this is a transplant of a desktop CPU, Alienware also pairs it with a desktop Z390 chipset instead of the more common HM370 used in most gaming laptops. Z390 consumes more power than its mobile counterpart but offers far more expansion options, such as additional PCIe lanes and native 10Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 2.
A socketed processor typically means user upgrades, and two scenarios make sense. The first is you buy the cheaper Core i7-8700 and upgrade to a Core i9-9900K down the road when they’re on fire sale.
The other scenario is upgrading to a “10th gen” Core i7 or Core i9. Given Intel’s history of dumping sockets or chipsets overboard, however, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to do it.
That said, the chances that Alienware would do all of this work without offering at least one useful CPU upgrade is very unlikely, because it has deeper insight than we do into what’s coming.
The Holy Grail of gaming laptops!
The most important component of any gaming PC is the GPU. In a desktop, the easy answer to better graphics is to upgrade to a newer or faster card. With a laptop, you’re usually stuck with turning down visual quality settings or resolution until you can no longer stomach it, at which point you buy a new laptop.
With the Area-51m, Alienware designed a custom graphics module that—in theory—can be upgraded down the road by the owner. While there have been smaller companies that actively market upgrade paths (Eurocom deserves a shout out here), no major companies have taken this path and succeeded.
(External graphics cabinets are another answer, but they don’t work for everyone. Some gamers need a truly portable setup, whether it’s because they live in a foot locker, or they actually travel a lot.)
Why U No MXM Alienware!?
Alienware has taken some flack for the custom design rather than an “off-the-shelf” MXM card but company officials said there’s some misunderstanding about MXM—which the company has used before in its laptops. For one thing, Alienware said, Nvidia and AMD no longer support it with reference boards.
While the spec still exists, each card maker must design, validate and build their own for the latest GPUs. And although people believe all MXM cards to be “the same,” they’re not, and often are not easily interchangeable either.
Faced with basically building custom boards to fit the MXM spec, Alienware reached into the Dell IP parts bin and borrowed the Dell Graphics Form Factor that Dell’s workstation group was developing for laptops.
Unlike MXM, which specifies shape and placement of components, the DGFF is looser and allowed Alienware to design a custom card specifically for the Area-51m. The custom DGFF also allowed Alienware to build a much slimmer design. The company said if it had used MXM, the Area 51m would have been another 4mm or 5mm thicker just based on the connector MXM uses.
If you’re seeing the words “proprietary” and “custom” and think it’s a play to soak you on any upgrade costs, Dell insists that’s not the case. Dell’s vision is to drive end-user upgrades as a feature to make people buy its laptops in the first place. If it charged more than competing MXM-based designs, that would drive people away from the laptop, not toward it.
It”s not like MXM-based designs are exactly cheap. Canadian laptop company Eurocom is one of the few that actually sells upgrades for its own laptops, along with Clevo, older Alienwares, and MSI laptops. The cost of a GeForce GTX 1080 MXM card? $1,249. The situation isn’t any better on eBay.com: We routinely found GTX 1080 MXM cards for $1,100 new and $700 used.
There’s a real chance future GPUs for the Area 51m will actually be cheaper than their MXM equivalents. Of course, without any actual upgrade GPU kits to compare, we’ll reserve judgement.
Dell did say its plan for upgrades are still in the works. And yes, if you buy a laptop with a GeForce RTX 2060—the company has plans to offer a GeForce RTX 2070 and GeForce RTX 2080 upgrade for it. Right now though, Alienware hasn’t rushed them out because it doesn’t think there’s much demand for upgrades for a brand-new laptop.
How the upgrade will work, maybe
With current (and future GPUs) it probably won’t be just the GPU that’ll need an upgrade. For example, if you buy the GeForce RTX 2060 version, you’ll get dual 180-watt power bricks, rather 180- and 330-watt bricks that come with our review unit’s RTX 2080. For those buyers, Dell said it plans to bundle the more powerful cooling system (as the existing cooling system has to be removed during the upgrade process anyway) and the required power brick to run the laptop. The company said it expects to have these kits for current GPUs available in two months. TL;DR: Dell will basically include what you need for the upgrade with the kit.
And yes, you’ll be able to do it yourself (hopefully)
Alienware officials said unlike some laptop maker’s upgrade programs, which require you to send back a laptop to have it upgraded, Alienware’s goal is to make it a true customer-based upgrading experience. One day, if the GPU gods are kind, you’ll buy a next-generation card from Dell and crack the shell open yourself.
The company said upgrading the graphics, GPU, RAM or storage won’t void the warranty. Well, at least early on. Alienware said the design of the Area-51m is intended to allow for GPU upgrades. If enough customers brick their laptops doing the upgrade, Dell may have to go to option two: an at-home upgrade service—which will also be offered as an option for those too busy or too cautious to do the upgrade themselves. The company won’t know, of course, until enough upgrades are done.
Alienware said it planned for a thermal budget of 200 watts for the GPU cooling system. That means any future upgrade, say a GeForce RTX 3080, would have to be within that envelope even to be offered.
Why this might actually work
Because no one knows what any next-generation GPU will output in heat, let alone when or what the next-gen GPUs from AMD or nVidia will be, it’s a leap of faith of that Alienware’s upgrade will even work. That’s the main reason previous attempts have failed as well. Asus tried it in 2007 with its C90s, using an MXM module with “at least one” promised upgrade. That upgrade, however, never came, because the next generation of Nvidia laptop graphics only got hotter and more power-hungry.
The reason Alienware’s Area-51m has a better chance is because laptop GPUs have mostly plateaued in thermals. With the move to a 7nm process from the RTX 2080’s 12nm, the smart money is power and thermals should be the same or even better.
Enough with all the features. Keep reading for benchmarks!
Alienware Area-51m CPU Performance
The proving ground of any gaming laptop is always in performance. Our Area-51m’s Intel Core i9-9900K CPU packs 8 cores plus Hyper-Threading.
The main difference between a mobile CPU and a desktop CPU (besides the ability to change it) is the number of cores. The top-of-the-line laptop Core i9-8950HK offers 6 cores with Hyper-Threading. While the mobile CPU has decently high clocks, it can’t keep up when you need more CPU threads. You can see that in our Cinebench R15 test run, where the desktop Core i9 simply pounds all others.
While you should expect a Core i9-9900K to dust off a 6-core Core i7-8750H, the real eyebrow-raiser is how well it dispatches that Core i7-8700K in the Origin EVO-17X, the Core i9-8950HK in the Alienware 17 R5, and the Ryzen 7 2700 in the Acer Predator Helios 500. That last CPU, mind you, is an 8-core desktop chip as well.
Performance of the Core i9-9900K in Cinebench is basically a half-step back from what we’ve seen from a bone “stock” Core i9-9900K in a desktop.
Because most apps rarely use all cores, we also look at single-core Cinebench performance. Although the test is a 3D modelling benchmark and doesn’t necessarily represent performance in all apps, it’s still a good way to judge what you might see in Photoshop or, say, Chrome. You see all of the CPUs push their top clock speeds, and we essentially see a three-way tie between the Core i9-9900K, the Core i9-8950HK, and the Core i7-8700K, each of them at or near their max.
If Ryzen 7 in a laptop is expecting to compete, it’ll have to run at higher clocks than what we see here.
Our last CPU test uses HandBrake to convert a 30GB 1080p video using the Android Tablet preset. This test can take 30 minutes to run, heating up the CPU for a longer period than Cinebench R15 does in its one-minute run. Because HandBrake favors more cores, it’s no surprise that the Core i9-9900K again drop-kicks the 6-core CPUs. It also has a pretty hefty lead over the 7-core Ryzen 7 2700 in the Acer Predator Helios 500. We’d credit this to two things: the higher clock speeds, and the cooling system in the Area-51m, which can take HandBrake’s longer load in stride.
Alienware Area-51m Gaming Performance
Now on to the main attraction: gaming performance.
First up, we take a look at UL’s 3DMark FireStrike. For this DX11 test, we’ll look solely at the graphics score, which cuts the CPU out as a factor. Yet again (as it should be) the Area-51m’s RTX 2080 is the top dog, with a healthy uptick even compared to overclocked GeForce GTX 1080 laptops.
3DMark FireStrike dates back to 2013 and was intended as a strenuous synthetic test of that era’s hardware. Much has changed since then, so we also wanted to see how the Area-51m’s RTX 2080 did in the 2016-era 3DMark Time Spy test. This test is DX12, and as you can see from FutureMark’s own documentation below, it uses a ton more shaders, tessellation, vertices, and triangles than FireStrike.
With the heavier workload we see the Area-51m open up an even larger gap over all other laptops we’ve tested. For comparison, the Area-51m with its RTX 2080 is about 25 percent faster than the Alienware 17 R4 with GTX 1080. In Time Spy, the Area-51m is about 38 percent faster than the Alienware 17 R4.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where benchmark graphics workloads may not match what developers are actually doing. They do, after all, have to make a living off selling a game, not a benchmark. Even though the Area-51m’s RTX 2080 is demonstrably faster in a perfect world, in the real world it’s closer than you’d hope for.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider set to Very High in DX11 mode at 1920×1080 resolution, you’re looking at about a 30-percent difference between the Area-51m and the Alienware 17 R4. The full-tilt RTX 2080 easily outguns even overclocked GTX 1080 laptops.
Our last test is Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, also run at 1920×1080, set to Ultra quality, and using the 4K texture pack. Again, the RTX 2080 smokes all that came before it. We’ll be interested to see how the Area-51m’s lead holds up as other full-tilt RTX 2080 come in for review, but it’s likely going to be a tough one to beat.
Area-51m Battery Life
We take a view that laptop battery life is based on context. We know a heavy, thick gaming laptop will spend 95 percent of its life on AC. So, call us surprised when the Area-51m and its 90-watt-hour battery clocked in just short of 6 hours of runtime while playing a video with the screen set to 250 to 260 nits and the wireless switched off. That’s surprisingly respectable given that the laptop has a G-sync-enabled 144Hz panel, which means the mighty RTX 2080 is always switched on. That’s typically a major battery-killer.
When you also factor in that the Area-51m has a desktop CPU and a desktop chipset, the Z390, we’d say this is amazing battery life—for video playback.
Just a reminder: If you fired up that RTX 2080 for a game, or pushed the Core i9-9900K in a CPU-heavy task, don’t expect more than an hour of run time if you’re lucky.
What about ray tracing performance? Keep reading to find out.
Area 51m Ray Tracing Performance
With RTX-based gaming laptops so new, it’s been hard to get a bead on how just how well they’ll perform in the Promised Land of hybrid ray traced gaming. We were especially concerned after our review of the MSI GS75 and its RTX 2080 Max-Q GPU, which sacrifices so much in clock speeds.
We run 3DMark’s Port Royal graphics test, which measures hybrid ray tracing. Comparing the results with some published desktop results, we can see the Area-51m’s RTX 2080 is about five percent slower than a reference desktop RTX 2080 card. We’d say that’s a pretty good win, especially compared to how the RTX 2080 Max-Q seems to fall.
Alienware Area-51m Thermals
The biggest enemy of performance in gaming laptops is heat. We ran the GPU stress test Furmark along with the CPU (the non-AVX version) stress test Prime 95 (using the in-place torture test.) We let it run with the fans set to Quiet, and then set to Full Speed.
On Quiet, the fans were far more restrained, and you can see the result on the GPU’s performance below. The RTX 2080 would run up and down in clock frequency, while the CPU maxed out at about 4.3GHz to 4.4GHz. With the fans set to a roaring full speed, the CPU hovered in the 4.45GHz to 4.6GHz range, with the RTX 2080 settling down at about 1,500MHz.
The CPU on heavy loads will typically push 99 degrees Celsius. Some will see that as too hot, but it’s not unheard of. Remember, this isn’t a desktop with unlimited cooling capability and space. Laptops and space-constrained devices often push the envelope to chase performance. Some laptop makers will opt for lower temps—and lower performance—while others will opt for all-out performance.
The Area-51m sucks air in through vents on the bottom and exhausts hot air out behind and from the sides. The system works quite well. Even after more than an hour of GPU and CPU torture tests, the keyboard was a comfortable 101 degrees. That may sound high to you, but it’s basically lukewarm.You can see from our thermal image that most of the hot air is vented out the rear, rather than parboiling your mouse and mouse pad.
Should you buy the Area-51m?
There are three main metrics for judging the Area 51m: performance, price, and upgrades.
On the performance front, it would be wrong to write anything other than flowery praise because, well, it’s the fastest laptop we’ve ever seen. It truly crushes the more common Core i7-8750H-based laptops. It also has no problems stomping the Core i9-8950HK and Core i7-8700K. The surprise is how well it dispatches the Ryzen 7 2700, too. This thing is a beast.
The GPU is no less monstrous. The RTX 2080 easily outpaces GTX 1080s too and establishes itself as the new top dog. The caveat, of course, is that this is the first Core i9-9900K and RTX 2080 laptop we’ve seen, but given what we’ve seen, it’ll be hard to beat.
The second criteria is price, and there it ranges from slightly expensive to unreasonable, depending on where you’re coming from. We found mobile Core i9 and RTX 2080 laptops in the $3,600 range, which makes the Area-51m we tested pretty pricey. But, if your goal is to step into a Core i9-9900K with an RTX 2080, expect to spend no less than $4,000, with many charging $4,500 for comparable specs.
The last criterion is the one that we really have a hard time judging, and that’s future upgrades. Alienware officials are very careful to avoid saying future upgrades are guaranteed. But they all but walk up to the line, cross themselves, and say by the grace of the GPU and CPU gods, you’ll get an upgrade or more. Lacking actual upgrades yet, it’s hard to render a verdict.
What we can say is that we applaud efforts to make laptops with upgradable components, or even the intention of upgradable components. While not everyone needs to pay the premium for the capability, the ability to extend the life of a laptop should be something all vendors strive for.